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Unlocking The Emotional Brain - Page 8

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Through several rounds of symptom deprivation, Raoul experienced three distressing dilemmas that he’d been avoiding with anger, and he verbalized them with the therapist’s help:

“Without my anger, I feel powerless and defenseless against being deceived again, so I need my anger.”

“Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”

“Without my anger, I feel he totally got away with it and there’s no accountability or justice in the world. Letting go of my anger would be letting go of my demand for accountability and justice—and that’s totally unacceptable to me.”

Addressing the first response, the therapist asked Raoul to say more about how vulnerable he felt to being deceived again.

“I didn’t see it coming, so how am I going to see it coming next time?” Raoul asked. The therapist responded, “I can understand that sense of vulnerability, but I’m also wondering whether there’s been something in your life that makes it extra uncomfortable to feel vulnerable, so that it’s better to get angry instead. Can we look at that?”

Raoul revealed that in his family of origin, a man who was worthy of respect never felt powerless and defenseless. Men were always supposed to know what to do, be strong for everyone else, and show no fear or pain. “That’s how I grew up. That’s my culture.” Being perceived as falling short in these qualities was shameful and had real consequences, like being excluded from important social circles and networking possibilities.

The therapist then helped Raoul dig deeper, resulting in this statement: “I can’t risk feeling this vulnerability because it’ll make me be seen by everyone as weak. I’ll be stuck forever in shame and excluded forever from things that are important to me.”

The therapist wrote this on an index card and asked Raoul to read the card every day between sessions. In his next session a week later, he reported an inner shift: “I’d look at a neighbor or at friends we were having dinner with, and think, ‘Really? This person would judge and exclude me like that? I don’t think so!’” Raoul was describing juxtaposition experiences that arose in daily life as a natural result of holding the schema consciously.

The therapist asked him to again say aloud the sentence on the card, and now it was flat and void of emotional resonance. His emotional schema had been dissolved. With the old social punishments no longer expected, his sense of vulnerability was greatly reduced, and the need to avoid it was no longer urgent. So his anger was no longer needed and the sentence was obsolete.

The therapist then addressed Raoul’s second statement: “Without my anger, I feel such intense grief and heartbreak over what I’ve lost that I might be swept away by it and unable to function, so I need my anger.”

His expectation of being overwhelmed by his feelings was the target emotional learning here. The best contradictory experience would be seeing for himself that it wasn’t so. To make it safe enough for Raoul to begin to feel his grief directly and realize that it wasn’t overwhelming, the therapist said, “Ungrieved grief causes people all kinds of trouble. Here in my office, with me guiding you, would you be willing to allow a minute or two of feeling just a small degree of the sensation of the heartbreak that you’re carrying around? I can coach you on how to open the valve a little, just for a minute. And then you’ll see that the valve closes, without the overwhelming feelings you’ve been anticipating.”

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